Tuesday, January 11 2022

German academics have spoken out against renewed government pressure for better communication with the public, arguing that it risks reducing scholarship to the mere production of “useful facts.”

Last month, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research unveiled measures to boost engagement, including making communication an ‘integral part’ of its funding decisions and putting in place an effective tool. line to measure which strategies work best.

In launching the plans, Minister Anja Karliczek said she wanted a “culture change” in academia that would allow researchers to provide “answers” ​​in an often unfactored public debate.

In response, 13 German scholarly associations, mainly in the humanities and social sciences, criticized the approach as reductive.

“It would be fatal to reduce science to the production of useful facts. It would also be fatal to make false promises to the public in this regard, ”they said in a joint statement.

In addition to building evidence-based knowledge, research must also produce “complexity, doubt, hesitation and new questions,” argue the organizations, which include national associations of historians, philosophers, sociologists, political scientists and anthropologists.

“You can’t go out there and promise that if we follow the scientific evidence, everything will be fine,” said Paula-Irene Villa, professor of sociology and gender studies at LMU Munich, and one of the authors. of the declaration.

“I agree that it is important to strengthen the relevance of facts, evidence and knowledge, especially for policy makers,” she said. However, “the problem is this reductionist view,” she added.

The science of climate change, for example, was “very clear”, but in response, “should Germany subsidize train and tram travel more and tax theft more heavily?” On this concrete level, things are no longer so clear, ”warned Professor Villa.

On other questions, such as whether inequality is worse today than it was a century ago, sociologists often couldn’t provide a clear answer, she said – it depended a lot on what was being measured.

More broadly, Professor Villa pushed back on what she described as the worldwide spread of “sometimes naïve enthusiasm” for engaging audiences.

“The main purpose of research is research, period,” she said. Although “research necessarily interacts with the public and the actors”, its legitimacy does not rest on its ability to be understood by the public, argued Professor Villa.

Another concern of researchers is that the focus on public understanding could “discriminate” against subjects that attract little public interest, endangering Germany’s constitutionally enshrined freedom of research, the statement said. .

Since being appointed Minister last year, Ms. Karliczek has made public engagement a priority. In one of her first interviews after taking office, the conservative politician called on German academics to explain their work in less scholarly and more widely read publications.

A ministry spokeswoman said science communication plans would be needed in future grant applications.

The specific type and amount of science communication funding would vary depending on the appeal, she said. “A fixed quota is not provided,” she added in a statement.

“The main players in science communication will remain the scientists themselves,” said the spokesperson. “In their project ideas, they can develop innovative concepts to communicate their research results to society. “

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com


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